Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan


Book Review

Atonement (2001)
by Ian MacEwan

  Another in a remarkable succession of books that were critically acclaimed, commercially succesful and the basis of succesful film versions,  Atonement is the kind of novel that really deserves to be called "meta fiction," with a narrator who is a novelist who is writing a novel about a "real" event about her life, and a novel about her life.  That person is Briony Tallis, who starts out as a young woman who wrongfully identifies her sister's new lover as a rapist, leading to his false imprisonment.  The title refers to her atonement for that false accusation.  Revealing that much is no spoiler, since Briony presents the initial accusation with a preface that she regrets what happened.
   And although there is a very personal and intimate betrayal at the heart of Atonement, which is classic Ian MacEwan, there is little else to link this book to his earlier works, except the generally high level of execution and a history of twist-like third act resolutions.  He's not know for historical fiction, and Atonement is mostly a work of historical fiction.  No one is murdered, no animals are tortured.  You could almost say he was selling out, were Atonement not based on a blatantly false mis-identification and subsequent imprisonment.


Nineteen Seventy-Seven (2000) by David Peace

Book Review
Nineteen Seventy-Seven (2000)
 by David Peace

  Nineteen Seventy-Seven is the second of four books in the Red Riding Quartet, about the Yorkshire Ripper murders, written by English author David Peace.  I'm not much for crime procedurals, being a criminal defense attorney.  I'm not one of those defense attorneys that holds law enforcement in contempt, but I've been around long enough to know that the idea of the super-hero police detective catching an active serial killer is a fantasy, and given the fact that this is a set of four books about a single killer, David Peace understands that as well. 

  Since there is no ending in the sense of catching a villain and obtaining an explanation, Nineteen Seventy-Seven is about the personal lives of the investigators, and a journalist covering the murders for the local paper.  The two main players are both engaged in protracted affairs with prostitutes, the victim of the Ripper.  There is nothing simplistic about the way Peace handles these troubled male characters, but at the same time, it certainly can be wearisome to read a work of literary crime fiction with a deeply troubled middle aged, married detective, cheating on his spouse with children at home.  The only other type of major player in detective fiction is the detective with no home life and all, whether through an off-stage death, a crippling character flaw or an inappropriate choice of mate.

  Both the sex and violence in Nineteen Seventy-Seven is explicit but not particularly shocking for anyone who has seen a single serial killer film. 

Thursday, March 08, 2018

The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989) by Jose Saramago

Book Review
The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989)
by Jose Saramago

   It was a big Nobel Prize in Literature win for Jose Saramago in 1998, the first by a Portuguese writer, and of course, the kind of thing that can ensure solid English language canonical status for non-English writing authors.   The History of the Siege of Lisbon was published in the original in 1989, the English translation came in 1996, so unlike many of his pre-Nobel Prize in Literature titles, it was translated into English before he won.

   The History of the Siege of Lisbon is an incredibly verbose book, combining elements of Italo Calvino, Borges and Umberto Eco, about an interpreter who decides to rewrite the history of the siege of Lisbon by inserting a "NOT" into the sentence where the writer begins to describe the help of travelling Crusaders for the Portuguese attackers.

 Raimundo Silva, the interpreter-protagonist thinks in ornate, multi-clause sentences that confound reader attempts to keep track of all but the most basic gist of the plot.  As he wanders around Lisbon, he seeks to actually conjure up his alternate history in the landscape, and he also grapples with what might be called "woman issues."

  Other than the density of the language, much of The History of the Siege of Lisbon presents the familiar scenario of a European novelist writing about a character who has trouble deciding what to do.  That's almost every European novel- some man dithering. 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (2003) by Mark Haddon

Book Review
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003)
by Mark Haddon

  The description of "international best-seller" dominates the 1001 Books selections between 2000 and 2006.  Whether this reflects a particular strength of that form of novel just before publication OR whether it reflects a lack of familiarity with lesser known titles published more recently OR both, it is a prominent feature.

  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is sold as a mystery story with an autistic narrator, and that is accurate.  Christopher Boone is the narrator, a so-called "savant" with behavioral problems and very solid math skills.  He's in a "special" school, but is planning to take his "A" levels, in Math, a prerequisite for university admission in England, where The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is set.

  The "curious incident" of the title is the murder of his neighbor's dog, setting Christopher off into a voyage of self-discovery.  Haddon handles the issues of raising an autistic child with real compassion and depth of insight.   Autism places severe stress on the relationships of parents, separation and divorce are common, even often.  I'm pretty sure that even today you can buy a paperback copy of this book in any English language airport in the western world.   When is the movie version coming out?  I guess, the play- which ran in the recent past, would be a precursor to a film, which would be a version of the play rather than a version of the book.


Wednesday, March 07, 2018

The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Image result for the remains of the day movie
Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson starred in the well known movie version of The Remains of the Day, the 1989 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Book Review
The Remains of the Day (1989)
by Kazuo Ishiguro

   The Remains of the Day is a definite skip, probably just because the idea of the movie version- starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, made me think that it was the kind of subject I wouldn't enjoy.  It was a decision I made over a year ago, before Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  When he won, I actually felt a twinge, knowing I had skipped The Remains of the Day, which is his break out novel, his one Booker Prize winner (four nominations).  The movie version netted eight Oscar nominations in 1994, winning zero.

 If you had to nutshell Ishiguro, you would have to focus on the extent to which all of his books explore memory and forgetfulness. He returns to the subject of unconscious forgetting again and again.  Of course, this is a dominant theme as Stephens, the butler played by Hopkins in the movie, recalls past episodes in his life working for Lord Darlington, a fictional character who none the less bears a close resemblance to figures from the English establishment who took a pro-Nazi stance into World War II and were punished by history for their mistake.

  Stephens gradually comes to doubt Lord Darlington, and the doubt arises in the midst of other recollections about the meaning of "dignity," his strained relationship with his father, also a butler, and most importantly his relationship with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson in the film) which, it develops, represents a missed life opportunity for Stephens.  The idea that memory is central to fiction in a crucial way is old- Proust, obviously, having crystallized memory as a fiction theme in Remembrance of Things Past.  Memory is central to fiction even when it is not a theme at all- since almost all novels involve someone writing something down at a later date.  The centuries old device of the "unreliable narrator" often implicates memory.

  I think the case could be made that Ishiguro, with his emphasis on the complexity of human memory, has received a boost from contemporaneous interest in brain chemistry and the way memories are formed.  The use of memory as a form of self deception also isn't unique to Ishiguro- a generation of post World War II German writers have returned repeatedly to the idea of conscious amnesia- but Ishiguro is the English language writer who has best anticipated the developments in the science of this area.

  The Remains of the Day is still fresh in that regard, and despite a very time specific setting- England between the wars- there is a universality of the Stephens/Kenton dynamic that has obviously stood the test of time. 

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell

Image result for cloud atlas movie
Tom Hanks and Halle Berry bombed their way through the movie version of Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell.

Book Review
Cloud Atlas (2004)
by David Mitchell

  Cloud Atlas is the perfect candidate for an audio book library check out: 544 pages long (audio book was 20 hours!), recently published, big international best seller.   When it comes to checking out free audio books, you are talking blockbuster/best seller types and public domain classics.  The Overdrive app used by the Los Angeles Public Library for Audio book checkouts allows you to speed up the playback up to 2x the original speed, a useful feature for all but the most obtuse books.  I find myself speed up and slowing down the narrative as accent and density requires.

  Cloud Atlas was a rare genre/popular/critical cross-over.  The blend of historical and science fiction is novel, and it is the boldness of the concept, rather than the details of the execution of the prose, that draws the reader along over 500 pages and five different story lines over thousands of years on different continents.  The philosophy underlying Cloud Atlas is sprawling, reincarnation is a prominent part of the theme of Cloud Atlas, though not the idea that the goal is release from the cycle of birth and death.  Only in the last hour or so of the 20 do any of the major characters start making grand philosophical statements about "what it all means" and when they do they all sound like Herman Hesse.

  The movie version, released in 2012, boasted an alleged budget of over 100 million dollars, and famously flopped to a 9 million dollar opening weekend.  You can tell, these days, that a theatrical film has well and truly flopped when it comes to Netflix, as is the case for Cloud Atlas.  I'd have to say that the movie flop didn't hurt the book, since the mere investment of 100 million dollars in the movie version raised the level of exposure such that Cloud Atlas is still in print, whereas it might not be were it not for the film.   Going from Booker Short list to 100 million dollar budget is an achievement worth writing about, even if the movie flopped.

Monday, March 05, 2018

A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (2002) by Donald Merlin

Book Review
A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (2002)
by Donald Merlin

    The field of consciousness-studies is fraught with inter-disciplinary peril, starting with the fact that the "mind/body problem" is central to the field of western philosophy and the answer to just that question has occupied over two millennia worth of highly complicated thought (see Western Philosophy, Eastern Philosophy.)   In only the past decades, the study of the brain, loosely called "neuroscience" has progressed in leaps and bounds, and has resulted in the formulation of a theory that denies consciousness exists, or rather, that consciousness is some kind of an illusion generated by brain chemistry.   In A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, Donald Merlin seeks to take on the opponents of the existence of consciousness on their own turf, wielding the latest (circa 2000) in brain science and cognitive psychology to show that Consciousness is demonstrably a product of evolution, and that consciousness exists BECAUSE of evolution and not as some kind of freak one time exception.

   Merlin's argument works on multiple levels, but the crux is that consciousness is a function of human interaction and is essentially impossible without human community. In other words, consciousness is social, and the very idea of a human developing consciousness in the absence of community is impossible.  He develops the scientific side of his thesis by carefully comparing the human brain to animal brains, and by examining examples of non human 'consciousness' in detail.  A Mind So Rare is not exactly general audience reading.  I took a couple of survey course in brain chemistry and college and was able to follow along, but I'm sure I missed details. 

Sunday, March 04, 2018

after the quake (2002) by Haruki Murakami

Book Review
after the quake (2002)
 by Haruki Murakami

 I'm not sure why short stories are so dramatically underrepresented in 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  They left Anton Chekov off the list entirely. There are a few short story collections between 1980 and the publication date of 2006, almost none before that point.    I do like Haruki Marakami.  It is quite a feat for a novelist/writer to make deep inroads in American literary fiction in translation, and that is exactly what Murakami has done, with a shelf of books that are still in print and often available for purchase at local independent book stores.

   Even as a fan, after the quake, a collection of previously published short stories that are loosely thematically bound by the 1995 Kobe earthquake.  It is true that the characters and themes resemble those of his earlier books.  That predictability is an important asset when it comes to developing and maintaining an audience that purchases the work and grows over time.  It's true whether someone is writing literary fiction, romance novels or making films.   It's also true that predictability and repetition is often disdained by the aesthetic ideology of contemporary artists.   This disdain is rooted in the adoption by artists of an aesthetic ideology that flows directly from 18th and 19th century Romanticism. 

  after the quake represents a shift for Murakami in matters of style- all stories are narrated from the third person, abandoning the first person narrative common to his previous books.  You could say that the whimsy and affectation has been toned down, and that Murakami has embraced a more conventional style.  You could argue that this shift isn't the best move for Murakami.  His appeal for American readers is linked directly to the whimsy and fantastical plot devices of his earlier books.  On the other hand, after the quake was published well after he became a "made man" in English translation, so the risk of some kind of career ending error is non existent. 

Gabriel's Gift (2001) by Hanif Kureshi

Book Review
Gabriel's Gift: A Novel  (2001)
 by Hanif Kureshi

  Like his other novels, Gabriel's Gift tracks the life and times of struggling "creative class" types living in present day London.  The major difference between Gabriel's Gift and other Kureshi titles is, as the Wikipedia page informs, white protagonists (instead of South Asian protagonists like his other books.)  I read Gabriel's Gift using the Kindle App on my Samsung Galaxy- after checking the Kindle Ebook out from the Los Angeles Public Library.   Gabriel's Gift is an ideal length- 220 pages in the paperback version; for reading as a Kindle Ebook. 

  The fact that Kureshi announces that Gabriel's Gift is, in fact, a novel, is questionable.  You could call it a novella.  Unless you are particularly fond of English working class/struggling class fiction, there isn't much here.  Kureshi has a deft touch with his characters, but they all read the same- three title in to his work, and all of his protagonists seem alike to me. 

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